Independent film is at a crossroads. After a decade of outstanding growth, the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers and the maturation of an older one, the effective transformation of an industry and of an art form, the question of what independent film actually is and where it’s headed is bound to stir discussion and debate. After eleven years of directing the Sundance Film Festival, perhaps I can offer perspective from a post that has allowed me a special understanding of the trends and developments that have characterized the growth of the independent film arena.
Throughout the past ten years, the remarkable success of independent film has been accompanied by a constant drumbeat thumping out the message that independent film is dead, or has become synonymous with studio output. Simply put, this isn’t true. There are reasons one might believe this to be the case, but an examination of the broader independent arena leads, I think, to a different conclusion.
That independent film, generally speaking, has ambitions to be commercially successful is certainly true. But that does not mean it is now no more than a creature of the market, like most studio productions. Indeed, independent film at its best is still aggressively, passionately, creatively driven and original. Just look at the films. Which of this year’s Independent Spirit Award nominees–Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Requiem for a Dream; Before Night Falls; You Can Count on Me; or Chuck & Buck–could have been made as a major studio film? None. Perhaps more significant, do any of these works suggest an arena that is aesthetically indistinguishable from even high-quality studio productions like Gladiator, Cast Away or, for that matter, Erin Brockovich? To anyone familiar with these works the answer is, I think, the same. None of the Independent Spirit nominees are derivative of commercial product. None are formulaic or mainstream in their appeal.
Low-budget works like George Washington, Everything Put Together, Our Song or Urbania, all Spirit Award nominees, have even less resemblance to mainstream studio filmmaking. Each of these films was produced for less than $500,000. They deal with subjects that include homophobia, SIDS, poverty and issues of social class, race and marginality. They focus on African-American, Latina and gay protagonists. Analysts of the doom- and-gloom persuasion would undoubtedly make the point that these films all had or will have a limited theatrical release, that the bigger, more commercial independent films have been crowding out the archetypal low-budget, “truly” independent films. It’s true that what I call “indie-studio” works are released on hundreds, even thousands of screens, thus relegating smaller films to just a few theaters. But that was always true. Pessimists would also say that the competitiveness in the theatrical marketplace, the number of releases fighting for exhibition, forces most low-budget films to go directly to video–but actually there are twice as many independent distribution companies now as there were five years ago, which makes it more likely that a greater number of films will find theatrical release, however brief.
In fact, there was never a golden age for independent films. The relative success of low-budget works like Clerks, The Brothers McMullen or El Mariachi says more about their freshness and distinctiveness as feature releases than it does about an ideal past when independent film was more fully appreciated. At the same time, the changing marketplace and evolving agendas of major independent distributors have a much greater impact on the availability of low-budget work than whether independent filmmaking has gone “mainstream.” Most major independent companies used to pride themselves on finding audiences for difficult-to-market films–that is, distinctive, interesting independent work. Now, having seen how much money can be made from the more “commercial” independent films, most of these companies are loath to take on pictures that don’t have relatively easy marketing handles.